As another snowpocalypse blusters through the mid-Atlantic, shaking our flags and shuttering our doors, I find myself thinking about how VAM’s member museums more generally and variously open our doors, ready to meet the winds of change, head-on. And as Virginia has just weathered its annual commemorations of Lee-Jackson Day and the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, this feels an especially fitting time to reflect on the conversations at VAM’s November workshop, “Museums at the Nexus of Crisis: The Confederate Emblem as Case Study.”
Before attending to the historical and cultural particularities of that emblematic case, let’s pause on the workshop’s title hook. It’s a sharp word, Nexus: itself suggesting some X-Roads, something up neXt, X-Marks the Spot, a mysterious Treasure Trove. But for all the felt urgency and import that nexus suggests, there’s also something deeply connective about the word. Indeed, nexus and connect share the same verbal root: nectere (follow me for a second, for those of you now repressing your high school classics class, or drily conjuring those Latinate identifications inscribed on the miniaturized, interpretive captions at your museum). Put another way, a ‘Nexus of Crisis’ might help us newly connect: not simply defend, or preach, or stake out different terrains. Attuned to such verbal and cultural cues, we want museums to be the place where people not only connect with ideas, traditions, and visions, but connect with others. How do our museums allow us not merely to bear custody of things, but offer places to connect with familiar members and cohorts, as well as new neighbors and visitors?
On November 16, a capacity crowd traveled to Appomattox for this timely VAM workshop, clear witness to its broad relevance. The day’s events were hosted at the former Museum of the Confederacy, one of the three core sites of the recently founded American Civil War Museum (ACWM). Discussions were structured around a panel of five members of the ACWM senior leadership team, representing different divisions across the museum’s operations. Their joint responses centered on a particular case study: the multiple modes of team response at the ACWM, when they were quickly and frequently approached for comments and expertise in the wake of the Dylann Roof murders in Charleston, along with the battles over the Confederate Flag flying on the grounds of the South Carolina State House.
Identifying a consistent message to be coherently, readily shared across a range of inquiries is critical to addressing any critical controversy, insisted the ACWM communications and marketing director, Patrick Saylor, and Dr. John Coski, ACWM historian and director of publications (and author of the definitive book: The Confederate Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, reviewed by VAM communications director Heather Widener in the Fall 2015 issue of the VAM Voice). They jointly noted successful opportunities in developing new content related to concerns at hand. “Museums should do what museums do best,” charged Coski, in distilling museums’ core functions: to provide background context, points of view, and credible sources of information. In this instance, their team produced a short video about flag debates and histories and posted it to their website, demonstrating educational opportunities associated with these issues, and their own museum’s particular abilities to engage with the public. Through the day, everyone echoed that establishing trusted media contacts in advance is also a critical step in preparing any museum to shape its communications in the most accurate, efficient and productive ways possible.
The ACWM’s co-CEOs, Christy Coleman and S. Waite Rawls III, duly emphasized the importance of approaching such moments with “strategic intent:” ensuring that conversations are clearly connected to institutional mission, as well as purposefully coherent across the organization’s administration and governing bodies. Consistency of messaging need not involve an anxious closing of ranks, however. As Rawls noted, museums characteristically want to show foresight and relevance. Simply put, he noted, “the cutting edge engages.” Coleman took the line a step further, identifying museums’ expertise and reach as tools to “sharpen the knife” at opportune cultural encounters. Training of staff, and a comprehensive vision of the different skill sets they bring to an integrated team, is as crucial as engaging museum boards to see opportunities to “lift our heads a little higher” during such opportunities for leadership. In wrapping her reflections on relevance and education, to the clear affirmation of many in the audience, Coleman noted: “We’re not dealing with the past, but the concerns of the present.”
From these broader considerations, the day was also tied together by Bob Sayre, the ACWM’s director of retail and visitor services. In an illuminating material display, Sayre walked participants through 15 full-size, reproduction flags sold in the museum’s gift shop, canvassing both Confederate and Union standards, battle flags and political flags. These tangible emblems and contexts highlighted some of the ways in which specific symbols can hold surprising and shifting meanings, for all assumed familiarities. Perhaps most valuable, though, were his accounts of boots-on-the-ground conversations at the front-desk switchboard, or of visitors’ cash-register inquiries, focused on the importance of getting those “front-line encounters” on a good foot for any authentic educational exchange. Most often, Sayre noted, concerned voices chiefly “want to be heard,” rather than to confront. These practical examples of daily engagement struck a clear chord across the audience, spurring comments from representatives of institutions from as broad a range as Washington and Lee University’s Lee Chapel and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton, to the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History and the Mosby Heritage Area Association in Northern Virginia.
To close, in a last linguistic turn: If nexus identifies some present connection, the core meanings of vers- direct us toward some kind of ‘turn.’ To be sure, contro-versy often brings the felt threat of some ‘counter’-turn; but con-versation invites us to turn not against, but turn ‘with’. The work of engaging cultural controversy, its complex social connections, is neither easy nor fully within our control. But museums can be critical instruments in turning our cultural conversations away from oppositional terms (us versus them) to educational encounters (take a turn with us, talk with us).
These are our daily challenges, and not merely the ones of urgent response: to discuss those matters that are most relevant to audiences; to ensure that we use our expertise and connections to steer conversations in meaningful ways; and to direct our attentions to new institutional opportunities, partnerships, and stakeholders that can help our museums grow and thrive, as vital parts of our communities.
Whatever your museum’s focus and mission, take the initiative to invite your colleagues – and your fellow institutions in VAM – to assess what feels most current in our culture, or particularly compelling to your members and visitors. Such candor and foresight can help to guide the way through the encounters we might anticipate, and those we don’t. We hope that VAM can play a role in that growth.
If you’re further interested in these particular connections and controversies, you can join the conversations at our 2016 Annual Conference in Williamsburg. Building on VAM communications director Heather Widener’s featured essay in the Fall 2015 edition of the VAM Voice, this year’s program will feature a pane session exploring “The Confederate Embattled Emblem” (with three historians, including John Coski himself), as well as a plenary session on “Race, Place, and Memory at Virginia’s Universities: Revolutionizing Collegiate Narratives,” (drawing six participants from across the state, and representing a wide range of institutions and positions). Come converse with us!
Eric Wilson is executive director, Rockbridge Historical Society and director for the Mountain and Valley region on VAM's board of directors.
Caption photo 1: Bob Sayre, the ACWM’s director of retail and visitor services, walked workshop participants through 15 full-size, reproduction flags sold in the museum’s gift shop, canvassing both Confederate and Union standards, battle flags and political flags. Courtesy of VAM.
Caption photo 2: American Civil War Museum at Appomattox, exterior view. Courtesy of the ACWM.